New School Skiing

New School Skiing is teaching good old hotdogging some radical new tricks

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This Guy Isn’t Goofing. He’s working on R&D.

It was a bitterly cold night last February when the Big Air competition at the U.S. Freeskiing Open got under way in Vail, Colorado. Mike Douglas, a Canadian freestyle skier, stood shivering in the starting box as a little-known Quebecois named Phil Poirier started down the ramp in rented boots and a borrowed pair of skis. Skiing backward, Poirier launched off the lip of the jump, performed a soaring back flip, and landed 50 feet down the hill—backward again. Douglas gasped. He hadn’t even jumped yet, but Poirier had won. “He took the sport to a new level,” Douglas recalls. “And I was like, ‘Great. Now I gotta learn another crazy move that scares the crap out of me.'”

During the past 18 months, Douglas and a group of fellow Canadian freestylers—among them, J-F Cusson (who invented the 360 mute grab three years before Jonny Moseley made it his signature stunt in Nagano), J. P. Auclair (credited with the first mute grab back flip), Vincent Dorion (a bold fakey innovator), and Shane Szocs (king of the front flip)—have helped launch and publicize a new movement. They have taken the raw energy that stokes motocross, in-line skating, and snowboarding, and injected it into skiing—a sport often criticized for its poor innovation, dwindling hipness, and flatlining sales (as the number of alpine skiers declined by 13 percent from 1993 to 1998, the number of snowboarders more than doubled). Their exploits have earned them the sobriquet “the New Canadian Air Force,” while their style, dubbed New School Skiing, has inspired the development of a new ski that makes its mass-market debut this month and that might just change the business of selling skis—precisely because the manufacturers that drive the business didn’t invent it.

Instead, they’ve enlisted Douglas and his friends to help them milk both the craze and the ski for every cent they’re worth. A native of Vancouver Island whose ski-bum argot camouflages a keen marketer’s mind, Douglas started skiing when he was 11 at nearby Mount Washington. By his midtwenties he had landed an assistant mogul-coaching gig with the Canadian National Freestyle Ski Team. The job, together with a $10,000 annual sponsorship from Kneissl, enabled him to spend most of his time hanging with the mogul team, a group of friends who in their off-hours were lighting up the terrain parks of Whistler-Blackcomb with a series of moves no one had ever really seen: crisp, edgy, uninhibited stunts, like the Japan Air, the Huntony, and the Misty-Flip 720, which owed as much to snowboarding and skateboarding as to anything that had been done on a pair of skis. Douglas and his friends weren’t the only ones experimenting, but as a group they were certainly the best.

Nonetheless, despite the innovations, Douglas lost his meal ticket in the winter of 1996 when he learned that Kneissl was scaling back its freestyle program. His lifestyle, and his nascent hotdog revolution, seemed doomed.

One night the following June, he found himself in a restaurant in Whistler commiserating with Steve Fearing, a fellow freestyler who coached the Japanese mogul team and whose sponsor was thinking of dumping him as well. Fearing mentioned that he’d heard the ski manufacturers were looking for something new. Douglas told him about the tricks he and his Canadian buds had been nailing, and the reactions of snowboarders, whose disdain for skiers had begun giving way to awe and respect. “We were talking about the energy on the glacier,” Douglas recalls, “marveling at the buzz that was building around what we were doing. And Steve asked, ‘What would it take to convince the ski industry that this is the next big thing?'”

That night, they hit upon an idea. Over the next two months, Douglas put together an eight-minute video showcasing his and his friends’ repertoire. To accompany the tape, Douglas wrote a 20-page memo that included the specs for a new ski that would suit their hotdogging. A ski that could perform in the half-pipe but also hold up all over the mountain in bumps, powder, and crud. A ski stiff enough for big landings but short enough for tricks in tight places. And most important, a ski that boasted turned-up tips on the back as well as the front, so that freeskiers could take off and land backward, opening up a new universe of tricks and, for the first time, tapping into snowboarding’s skate-park appeal. He shipped the package to virtually every manufacturer in the industry and spent the next three months waiting for the phone to ring. “I was so discouraged,” Douglas recalls. “The ski industry has always been so conservative. And once again, no one was stepping up.”

Unbeknownst to him, however, the tape was creating some excitement at Salomon, generally considered to be one of the savvier marketers in the industry. “This was the first time we’d seen something that looked as big as snowboarding,” says Mike Adams, director of alpine marketing. “I showed the tape to my kids. My ten-year-old, he just went off.” In early December 1997, Douglas got a call from Guy “Mingo” Berthiaume, Salomon’s promotions manager in Montreal. Salomon wanted to work with the Canadians, and the company’s R&D team in Annecy, France, had some preliminary designs. Would Douglas and his team be interested in seeing them?

Over the next six months, Salomon and Douglas forged an unusual partnership. Every few weeks, Douglas, Fearing, and the crew would receive a package of prototypes from France, which the Canadians would put through their paces and then fax the R&D unit with comments on everything from the sidecut to the color scheme. By February 1998, the final prototype, dubbed the Teneighty in honor of the coveted three revolutions (3 x 360 = 1,080), was ready for trials. On his first test run, Douglas tore several ligaments in his ankle while attempting to ski backward. But within weeks, he and his team were further expanding their routine with inverts and other moves that they had never thought possible.

This past winter, under contract with Salomon, they took their act and their ski on the road. Featured in a crop of freestyle videos with titles like Degenerates and Global Storming, the Canadians became celebrities. Their Teneighties, which had an initial run of 300 pairs and a second run of 1,000, were turning heads, too. Kids who wouldn’t have been caught dead on skis two years earlier were pestering the lucky 1,300 in lift lines. Dynastar, Rossignol and K2, and others rushed rival models into production. And most tellingly, snowboarders started voicing odd remarks. “I had never realized what was going on,” says Drew Neilson, 25, who took second place in Boardercross at the 1999 X Games. “Now that I see the crazy stuff these guys are doing, I’d like to get back on a pair of skis.”

This winter, Salomon will offer 10,000 pairs of the Teneighty, which will arrive in stores by the 15th of this month, and will be priced at $595. The company hopes to create the biggest sensation since the introduction of the Burton Performer snowboard in 1985—and perhaps it will, if for no other reason than, as with the snowboard, the sport preceded the product. “I’m not even sure the ski manufacturers realized there was a bandwagon to jump on,” says extreme-skiing icon Glenn Plake. “But at least somebody was finally smart enough to listen to these guys. It’s great to see hotdog skiing alive and well again.”


Day Trippers

A dubious ecotourist offering aims to take you out of this world

As night descends over the Peruvian rainforest, an Indian shaman crouched in a thatch-roofed hut passes a gourd filled with a mahogany-colored liquid—a potent hallucinogen believed to cure illnesses and conjure visions of the future. The drug has been a staple of Amazonian tribal religions for nearly a thousand years, but tonight’s ceremony is far from traditional. The participants, clad in fleece and sneakers, weary from a day of bird-watching, are American and European ecotourists, each of whom has paid around $50 to participate in a ritual that, for most, will include bouts of the most violent vomiting they’ve ever experienced in their lives.

For decades, bands of intrepid travelers, including the Beat bards William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, have trickled into the Amazon basin in search of ayahuasca, a rainforest vine that yields a complex cocktail whose chemical properties have been likened to LSD’s and whose side effects can include nausea, aneurysms, and hemorrhagic stroke. Ever since Peru’s Shining Path rebels took over the Peruvian backcountry in the late 1980s, such experiences have largely been off-limits to foreigners. After the insurgent group’s collapse in the mid-1990s, however, ayahuasca has emerged as an important part of the tourist business, thanks to local outfitters promoting these rituals, mostly on the Internet, as a can’t-miss component of the jungle experience. At more than a dozen rainforest lodges in the Amazon port town of Iquitos, shamans now conduct nightly ayahuasca ceremonies.”It’s like nature takes over your mind,” says Deborah Garcia, a Spanish tourist. “I saw rivers, and the roots of trees in the earth, and tons of green.”

Sound appealing? Before rushing to book a reservation, consider the possibility that you may be hallucinating. This month, when the International Congress on Alternative Medicine convenes in Lima, critics will argue that ayahuasca tourism trivializes a sacred Amazonian rite while leaving travelers at the mercy of shamans-for-hire, most of whom know nothing about their clients’ health. “Under these conditions,” warns Roger Rumrill, an expert on Amazonian tribal cultures, “ayahuasca can be a one-way ticket on a trip with no return.”


Good Gauley?

No longer. Thanks to a hydro scheme, one of America’s wildest whitewater scenes is getting a lot tamer.

It’s a fall morning just below West Virginia’s Summersville Dam, and a torrent of whitewater thunders through threemassive penstock valves, spraying mist 60 feet into the air. For the boaters launching from the north bank, this display of brute hydraulic force is a familiar spectacle: Most weekends during September and October, dam releases transform the Upper Gauley River into a 12-mile obstacle course of Class V rapids and SUV-size boulders. One of the most dramatic sections is the put-in near Summersville. “I can’t think of a bigger rush,” says David Arnold, president of Class VI River Runners, a local outfitter, “than the first five minutes on the Gauley.”

Unfortunately, by next September this predictable but heart-pounding excitement will be a thing of the past, thanks to a plan to couple the 35-year-old dam with a $53 million hydroelectric plant. A power-generating scheme licensed to the town of Summersville by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the project will divert water through a pipe that releases beneath the river’s surface, turning the put-in into a tranquil wading pool. While the project will have no impact downstream, boating advocates, bemoaning the loss of one of the gnarliest whitewater scenes east of the Mississippi, fear the deal could be a harbinger of worse changes to come.

Since 1986, the FERC has been forced to give “equal consideration” to energy conservation, fish and wildlife protection, and recreation—an arrangementthat is the cornerstone of the country’s best dam-release whitewater runs, such as the Nantahala River Gorge in North Carolina. But over the next 15 years, some 275 dams in the United States will be eligible for relicensing, and boaters fear that profit-minded utility firms will use the opportunity to renegotiate their costly dam-release requirements. “The Gauley is just the tip of the iceberg,”predicts David Brown, executive director of the whitewater trade association America Outdoors. Although no one can predict what will come next, this much is certain: If you want to be among the last to experience one of America’s most spectacular whitewater put-ins, you’d better do it this fall. 


Jump Down Turnaround

The strange and untimely death of Frank Gambalie III

 The last time frank Gambalie III was mentioned in these pages, he was on a cell phone speaking with the pioneering “rope jumper”Dan Osman, who was in the process of making his final, fatal dive off Yosemite’s Leaning Tower in November 1998 (“Terminal Velocity,” April). Two months after that article appeared, Gambalie, 28, took a running leap off the edge of El Capitan’s west wall. At 5:10 a.m.on the morning of June 9, he completed a 16-second free fall, opened his BASE-jumping parachute, and touched down unscathed in El Capitan Meadow. Minutes later Gambalie, who knew that jumping is illegal, was dead, drowned in the Merced River while trying to outrun park rangers. One of several bizarre incidents plaguing the Yosemite Valley area over the past year, his death was soon eclipsed by an even more horrifying tragedy:the July 22 discovery of the body of Joy Ruth Armstrong, a park naturalist who was beheaded by confessed serial killer Cary Stayner.

“BASE” stands for “Buildings, Antennae, Spans, and Earth,” the four primary types of fixed objects from which skydiving’s splinter sect leaps. Today, the activity is forbidden in all national parks at all times, but Yosemite officials estimate that each year around 100 jumpers poach its precipices. “El Cap is a crown jewel,”says Gambalie’s mentor, Adam Filippino. “People travel from all over the world to do it. The lure is high.”If caught, the Class B misdemeanor carries a maximum $5,000 fine or six months in jail and usually includes forfeiture of the perpetrator’s gear. Park rangers are vigorous about prosecuting as many as they can catch. And that’s where Gambalie came in.

When Gambalie landed in El Capitan Meadow, euphoric from his 3,000-foot drop, two rangers appeared, as if from nowhere, bent on apprehending him. Yosemite spokesman Kendell Thompson says the rangers had been alerted when they sighted the jumper’s canopy opening in the predawn haze. But according to Gambalie’s cohorts, the rangers had received an advance tip from an informant who camped atop El Cap the same night, cozied up to the jumper to learn his plans, and later alerted officials via cell phone. When the rangers immediately gave chase, Gambalie sprinted to the Merced River, which was swollen with spring snowmelt, dove in, and began to swim across. By the time the rangers reached the bank, Gambalie was gone. His body was recovered 28 days later, pinned beneath a river rock 300 feet from where he had last been seen. At the time of his death, Gambalie stood at the pinnacle of his sport, having made more than 600 jumps from structures all over the world, including New York’s Chrysler Building and a thirteenth-century cathedral in Germany.

Filippino, who spent 36 hours behind bars in 1989 for jumping in the park, argues that Yosemite’s rangers treat BASE jumping in a manner that is completely out of proportion to the scale of the violation. “They had a freaking serial killer in Yosemite living right under their noses,”he says, “and federal agents were chasing BASE jumpers to death.” Rangers, however, contend that jumpers have no business in Yosemite. “This is not a low-risk activity,”says Thompson. “Four jumpers have died in the park. It’s just not appropriate here.”

Fatal Summer

“It’s hard to fathom what goes on when water comes down these canyons,” says Wolfgang Woernhard, director of the Association of Swiss Mountain Guides, of the July 27 flash flood that killed 21 tourists and guides when a tree-and-boulder-laden tidal wave raced through a gorge near the Swiss town of Interlaken. “The currents alone can kill you.” The fatal canyoning expedition has unleashed a torrent of renewed debate over why, and at what cost, people are pursuing high-adrenaline adventure. It’s a sentiment that seems especially apt, coming as it does near the end of a summer in which the cost of risk has been especially high, as evidenced by the July 8 disappearance on Mount Rainier of former Village Voice editor Joseph Wood Jr., whose presumed death is the fourth on the mountain since May—and the July 31 plane crash that killed nine members of a Michigan-based skydiving group. Why the rash of risk-related tragedies? “Some people want an adrenaline rush without paying their dues,” says Outward Bound USA’s vice-president of safety and programs, Lewis Glenn. Others argue that taking chances is worth it. “We embrace risk because it makes life more interesting,” says Mountain Travel– president Richard Weiss. “Mercifully, these tragedies are rare. I really don’t see this summer as out of the ordinary.”


Best Actors in a Supporting Role

Lance Armstrong is basking in the limelight, but what about the riders who made his victory possible?

Within the week that followed the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong’s post-race media victory lap included the following: three phone calls from President Clinton (Lance was too busy to take the first two), appearances on Today and Letterman, a movie deal, a book deal, and a rumored $4 million in new endorsements. During the same period, Frankie Andreu, a fellow rider on the U.S. Postal Service Team who controlled the pace of the peloton to safeguard Lance’s position, wound up with a case of Jif peanut butter (after wistfully revealing on the Internet that he missed the stuff). “It’s hard not to be overshadowed by a story like Lance’s,” sighs Dan Osipow, the team’s operations director.”But these guys will get their chance.”

Indeed. Amid the acclaim washing over the second American cyclist and the first American team ever to win the Tour de France, one important fact was obscured: No cyclist ever wins a major stage race alone; victory is purchased at the cost of a Kabuki-like orchestration of attacks, feints, and spectacular self-immolations on the part of team members supporting their captain. Thus it is appropriate to note—and commend—the extraordinary accomplishments of a nine-rider group that Osipow praises, with self-interest but also with reasonable accuracy, as “the deepest, most talented U.S. cycling team in history.” (It was also the most richly remunerated team of the tour, netting $475,000 in prize money.)

Sponsored as part of an incongruous campaign to create greater “brand awareness”for the U.S. Postal Service’s exciting line of padded envelopes and cardboard boxes, the team includes sprinter George Hincapie, who led Armstrong on the flats; climbers Tyler Hamilton (who finished 13th) and Kevin Livingston, who pulled him up the mountains; and Christian Vande Velde, Pascal Deramé, and Andreu, who chased down breakaway riders and kept anyone from threatening Armstrong’s lead. (Teammates Jonathan Vaughters crashed out and Peter Meinert withdrew because of knee problems.)

Also somewhat lost in the hoopla was the fact that while Armstrong is busy sorting through offers with his publicist, schmoozing with talk-show hosts, and basking in immensely well-deserved glory, the rest of his team is furiously pedaling through several more European road races this fall. Back in America’s heartland, however, only one name reverberates. Even at the Bikesport shop in Andreu’s hometown of Dearborn, Michigan, manager Ken O’Day says he’ll give his longtime friend a big, congratulatory clap on the back when he returns. “Then I’m going to ask if he’ll get Lance to sign a team poster for me.”


And Now for Something Completely Impossible…

Göran Kropp has taken up a formidable new challenge: topping himself

Last February, Göran Kropp was spotted cantilevered over the rail of his 12-foot Laser in subfreezing gale-force winds on Sweden’s Lake Vättern. An alarmed passerby phoned the police, who tore after Kropp in a rescue boat. When the cops pulled alongside, they found Kropp happily flying through the chop, ice caked to his eyebrows and sculpted into wild organic shapes around the mast. The 32-year-old adventurer told his would-be rescuers that he was just learning to sail—the first and most important phase of training for his next epic stunt. “I want to be prepared for the frigid temperatures,” says Kropp. “For the blizzards, hurricanes, and monstrous winds in the Southern Ocean.”

Readers of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air will remember Kropp as the Swedish soloist who won the respect of every seasoned mountaineer on Everest for his transcendently pure ascent: He biked 8,580 miles from Stockholm to Kathmandu, summited without oxygen or Sherpas to carry his gear, and pedaled home again. Then, like any good adventure-performance artist, he wrote about it. This month, Kropp is touring the country, promoting his book, Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey (published by Discovery Books), and laying the groundwork for an encore. Sometime in 2003, he plans to sail a specially designed 30-foot boat—alone—from Sweden to McMurdo Sound in Antarctica (6,000 miles), ski to and from the South Pole (another 1,440 miles) in three months, and then sail home again.

“Göran’s brain is completely loose!” laughs winner of last year’s Whitbread Around the World Race and fellow Swede Magnus Olsson, who’s been tutoring Kropp in the fundamentals of long-distance ocean sailing. “He’s determined to do it, but in such a small boat he’ll have to be very good at analyzing the weather to outrace the deadly storms off Cape Horn.” A competitive cross-country skier who has trained with the Swedish national team, Kropp embarks on his first mega distance test-run this February, when he skis from the edge of the Arctic, off Russia’s Novaya Zemlya, to the North Pole. As for the sailing partŠwell, he’s got three more years to perfect his seamanship. “It may sound like madness,” Kropp admits, “but you only have one life. I want to see and do as much as possible, and I think I’m doing that when I’m living like this.”


It Takes Three to Trango

The stormy climax of the greatest big-wall ascent in climbing history

Last June, when we previewed the attempt by Mark Synnott, Jared Ogden, and Alex Lowe to make a first ascent of the northwest face of Pakistan’s Great Trango Tower—believed to be the biggest sheer granite wall on earth—we had a feeling they were in for an epic experience. But by the time the trio had returned to base camp on July 31, “epic” seemed an inadequate description of their ordeal. During the 36-day, storm-wracked ascent to the 20,500-foot summit, Synnott and Ogden persevered at the cost of little more than hypothermia, exhaustion, and shredded hands. Lowe, however, wasn’t nearly so fortunate. He contracted a mysterious intestinal infection at 18,000 feet, was struck on the head by a rock and knocked unconscious during a rappel to a bivy ledge, and took a bruising 50-foot fall while leading one of the final pitches, a mishap that inflicted several cuts and abrasions, as well as a puncture wound to his elbow.

Shortly after reaching the summit on July 29, beating a rival Russian team by more than a week, the threesome encountered a tempest that forced them to stage a perilous, rain-soaked retreat down the 6,000-foot route in 48 hours. Synnott admits he still can’t quite grasp the magnitude of the accomplishment, perhaps the greatest big-wall climb ever. “By the time we were descending, things were pretty out of control,” he says. “But we just sucked it up. This was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Got Any Ice? 

“Sixth place isn’t great,” concedes Marshall Ulrich, 48, of his finish in the Badwater Ultra Marathon on July 15. “But I was whipped before the race began.” For which Ulrich has only himself to thank. Ten days prior to the event, he staged an unorthodox solo “training run” along the 138-mile course, which ascends from Death Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney, in California. To aid his 77-hour ordeal, the owner of a pet food company in Fort Morgan, Colorado, lugged 21 gallons of water in a cart equipped with a rubber tube and a solar-powered pump. Impressive? Well, sure; but it also poses a rather burning question: Why? “I hate when people say something’s impossible,” explains Ulrich, a four-time Badwater champion whose next goal makes his present accomplishment look like a cinch. “I’d love to do two back-to-back laps on the Badwater course.”



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